Read THE CONSECRATION OF WESTMINSTER ABBEY of Legends of the Saxon Saints , free online book, by Aubrey de Vere, on

Sebert, King of the East Saxons, having built the great church of Saint Peter at Westminster, Mellitus the Bishop prepares to consecrate it, but is warned in a vision that it has already been consecrated by one greater than he.

As morning brake, Sebert, East Saxon king,
Stood on the winding shores of Thames alone,
And fixed a sparkling eye upon Saint Paul’s:
The sun new-risen had touched its roofs that laughed
Their answer back. Beyond it London spread;
But all between the river and that church
Was slope of grass and blossoming orchard copse
Glittering with dews dawn-reddened. Bertha here,
That church begun, had thus besought her Lord,
’Spare me this bank which God has made so fair!
Here let the little birds have leave to sing,
The bud to blossom! Here, the vespers o’er,
Lovers shall sit; and here, in later days,
Children shall question, “Who was he Saint Paul?
What taught, what wrought he that his name should shine
Thus like the stars in heaven?"’
As Sebert stood,
The sweetness of the morning more and more
Made way into his heart. The pale blue smoke,
Rising from hearths by woodland branches fed,
Dimmed not the crystal matin air; not yet
From clammy couch had risen the mist sun-warmed:
All things distinctly showed; the rushing tide,
The barge, the trees, the long bridge many-arched,
And countless huddled gables, far away,
Lessening, yet still descried.
A voice benign
Dispersed the Prince’s trance: ’I marked, my King,
Your face in yonder church; you took, I saw,
A blessing thence; and Nature’s here you find:
The same God sends them both.’ The man who spake,
Though silver-tressed, was countenanced like a child;
Smooth-browed, clear-eyed. That still and luminous mien
Predicted realms where Time shall be no more;
Where gladness, like some honey-dew divine,
Freshens an endless present. Mellitus,
From Rome late missioned and the Coelian Hill,
Made thus his greeting.
Westward by the Thames
The King and Bishop paced, and held discourse
Of him whose name that huge Cathedral bore,
Israel’s great son, the man of mighty heart,
The man for her redemption zealous more
Than for his proper crown. Not task for her
God gave him: to the Gentiles still he preached,
And won them to the Cross. ‘That Faith once spurned,’
Thus cried the Bishop with a kindling eye,
’Lo, how it raised him as on eagle’s wings,
And past the starry gates! The Spirit’s Sword
He wielded well! Save him who bears the Keys,
Save him who made confession, “Thou art Christ,”
Saint Paul had equal none! Hail, Brethren crowned!
Hail, happy Rome, that guard’st their mingled dust!’

Next spake the Roman of those churches twain
By Constantine beside the Tyber built
To glorify their names. With sudden turn,
Sebert, the crimson mounting to his brow,
Made question, ’Is your Tyber of the South
Ampler than this, our Thames?’ The old man smiled;
’Tyber to Thames is as that willow-stock
To yonder oak.’ The Saxon cried with joy:
’How true thy judgment is! how just thy tongue!
What hinders, O my Father, but that Thames,
Huge river from the forests rolled by God,
Should image, like that Tyber, churches twain,
Honouring those Princes of the Apostles’ Band?
King Ethelbert, my uncle, built Saint Paul’s;
Saint Peter’s Church be mine!’
An hour’s advance
Left them in thickets tangled. Low the ground,
Well-nigh by waters clipt, a savage haunt
With briar and bramble thick, and ‘Thorny Isle’
For that cause named. Sebert around him gazed,
A maiden blush upon him thus he spake:
’I know this spot; I stood here once, a boy:
’Twas winter then: the swoll’n and turbid flood
Rustled the sallows. Far I fled from men:
A youth had done me wrong, and vengeful thoughts
Burned in my heart: I warred with them in vain:
I prayed against them; yet they still returned:
O’erspent at last, I cast me on my knees
And cried, “Just God, if Thou despise my prayer,
Faithless, thence weak, not less remember well
How many a man in this East Saxon land
Stands up this hour, in wood, or field, or farm,
Like me sore tempted, but with loftier heart:
To these be helpful yea, to one of these!”
And lo, the wrathful thoughts, like routed fiends,
Left me, and came no more!’
Discoursing thus,
The friends a moment halted in a space
Where stood a flowering thorn. Adown it trailed
In zigzag curves erratic here and there
Long lines of milky bloom, like rills of foam
Furrowing the green back of some huge sea wave
Refluent from cliffs. Ecstatic minstrelsy
Swelled from its branches. Birds as thick as leaves
Thronged them; and whether joy was theirs that hour
Because the May had come, or joy of love,
Or tenderer gladness for their young new-fledged,
So piercing was that harmony, the place
Eden to Sebert looked, while brake and bower
Shone like the Tree of Life. ‘What minster choir,’
The Bishop cried, ’could better chant God’s praise?
Here shall your church ascend: its altar rise
Where yonder thorn tree stands!’ The old man spake;
Yet in him lived a thought unbreathed: ’How oft
Have trophies risen to blazon deeds accursed!
Angels this church o’er-winging, age on age
Shall see that boy at prayer!’
In peace, in war,
Daily the work advanced. The youthful King
Kneeling, himself had raised the earliest sod,
Made firm the corner stone. Whate’er of gold
Sun-ripened harvests of the royal lands
Yielded from Thames to Stour, or tax and toll
From quays mast-thronged to loud-resounding sea,
Save what his realm required by famine vexed
At times, or ravage of the Mercian sword,
Went to the work. His Queen her jewels brought,
Smiling, huge gift in slenderest hands up-piled;
His thanes their store; the poor their labour free.
Some clave the quarry’s ledges: from its depths
Some haled the blocks; from distant forests some
Dragged home the oak-beam on the creaking wain:
Alas, that arms in noble tasks so strong
Should e’er have sunk in dust! Ere ten years passed
Saint Peter’s towers above the high-roofed streets
Smiled on Saint Paul’s. That earlier church had risen
Where stood, in Roman days, Apollo’s fane:
Upon a site to Dian dedicate
Now rose its sister. Erring Faith had reached
In those twin Powers that ruled the Day and Night,
To Wisdom witnessing and Chastity,
Her loftiest height, and perished. Phoenix-like,
From ashes of dead rites and truths abused
Now soared unstained Religion.
What remained?
The Consecration. On its eve, the King
Held revel in its honour, solemn feast,
And wisely-woven dance, where beauty and youth,
Through loveliest measures moving, music-winged,
And winged not less by gladness, interwreathed
Brightness with brightness, glance turned back on glance,
And smile on smile a courtseying graciousness
Of stateliest forms that, winding, sank or rose
As if on heaving seas. In groups apart
Old warriors clustered. Eadbald discussed
And Snorr, that truce with Wessex signed, and said,
‘Fear nought: it cannot last!’ A shadow sat
That joyous night upon one brow alone,
Redwald’s, East Anglia’s King. In generous youth
He, guest that time with royal Ethelbert,
Had gladly bowed to Christ. From shallowest soil
Faith springs apace, but springs to die. Returned
To plains of Ely, all that sweetness past
Seemed but a dream while scornful spake his wife,
Upon whose brow beauty from love divorced
Made beauty’s self unbeauteous: ’Lose why not?
Thwarting your liegeful subjects, lose at will
Your Kingdom; you that might have reigned ere now
Bretwalda of the Seven!’ In hour accursed
The weak man with his Faith equivocated:
Fraudful, beneath the self-same roofs he raised
Altars to Christ and idols. By degrees
That Truth he mocked forsook him. Year by year
His face grew dark, and barbed his tongue though smooth,
Manner and mind like grass-fields after thaw,
Silk-soft above, yet iron-hard below:
Spleenful that night at Sebert’s blithe discourse
He answered thus, with seeming-careless eye
Wandering from wall to roof:
’I like your Church:
Would it had rested upon firmer ground,
Adorned some airier height: its towers are good,
Though dark the stone: three quarries white have I;
You might have used them gratis had you willed:
At Ely, Elmham, and beside the Cam
Where Felix rears even now his cloistral Schools,
I trust to build three churches soon: my Queen,
That seconds still my wishes, says, “Beware
Lest overhaste, your people still averse,
Frustrate your high intent. A womans wit
Yet here my wife is wiser than her wont.
I miss your Bishop: grandly countenanced he,
Save for that mole. He shuns our revel: ay!
Monastic virtue never feels secure
Save when it skulks in corners!’ As he spake,
Despite that varnish on his brow clear-cut,
Stung by remembrance, from the tutored eye
Forth flashed the fire barbaric: race and heart
A moment stood confessed.
Old Mellitus,
That night how fared he? In a fragile tent
Facing that church expectant, low he knelt
On the damp ground. More late, like youthful knight
In chapel small watching his arms untried,
He kept his consecration vigil still,
With hoary hands screening a hoary head,
And thus made prayer: ’Thou God to Whom all worlds
Form one vast temple: Thou Who with Thyself,
Ritual eterne, dost consecrate that Church,
For aye creating, hallowing it forever;
Thou Who in narrowest heart of man or child
Makest not less Thy dwelling, turn Thine eyes
To-morrow on our rite. The work we work
Work it Thyself! Thy storm shall try it well;
Consummate first its strength in righteousness;
So shall beginning just, whate’er befall,
Or guard it, or restore.’
So prayed the man,
Nor ever raised his head saw nought heard nought
Nor knew that on the night had come a change,
Ill Spirits, belike, whose empire is the air,
Grudging its glories to that pile new raised,
And, while they might, assailing. Through the clouds
A panic-stricken moon stumbled and fled,
And wildly on the waters blast on blast
Ridged their dark floor. A spring-tide from the sea
Breasted the flood descending. Woods of Shene
And Hampton’s groves had heard that flood all day,
No more a whisperer soft; and meadow banks,
Not yet o’er-gazed by Windsor’s crested steep
Or Reading’s tower, had yielded to its wave
Blossom and bud. More high, near Oxenford,
Isis and Cherwell with precipitate stream
Had swelled the current. Gathering thus its strength
Far off and near, allies and tributaries,
That night by London onward rolled the Thames
Beauteous and threatening both.
Its southern bank
Fronting the church had borne a hamlet long
Where fishers dwelt. Upon its verge that night
Perplexed the eldest stood: his hand was laid
Upon the gunwale of a stranded boat;
His knee was crooked against it. Shrinking still
And sad, his eye pursued that racing flood,
Here black like night, dazzled with eddies there,
Eddies by moonshine glazed. In doubt he mused:
Sudden a Stranger by him stood and spake:
‘Launch forth, and have no fear.’ The fisher gazed
Once on his face; and launched. Beside the helm
That Stranger sat. Then lo! a watery lane
Before them opening, through the billows curved,
Level, like meadow-path. As when a weed
Drifts with the tide, so softly o’er that lane
Oarless the boat advanced, and instant reached
The northern shore, dark with that minsters shade;
Before them close it frowned.
’Where now thou stand’st
Abide thou:’ thus the Stranger spake: anon
Before the churchs southern gate he stood:
Then lo! a marvel. Inward as he passed,
Its threshold crossed, a splendour as of God
Forth from the bosom of that dusky pile
Through all its kindling windows streamed, and blazed
From wave to wave, and spanned that downward tide
With many a fiery bridge. The moon was quenched;
But all the edges of the headlong clouds
Caught up the splendour till the midnight vault
Shone like the noon. The fisher knew, that hour,
That with vast concourse of the Sons of God
That church was thronged; for in it many a head
Sun-bright, and hands lifted like hands in prayer,
High up he saw: meantime harmonic strain,
As though whatever moves in earth or skies,
Winds, waters, stars, had joined in one their song,
Above him floated like a breeze from God
And heaven-born incense. Louder swelled that strain;
And still the Bride of God, that church late dark,
Glad of her saintly spousals, laughed and shone
In radiance ever freshening. By degrees
That vision waned. At last the fisher turned:
The matin star shook on the umbered wave;
Along the East there lay a pallid streak,
That streak which preludes dawn.
Beside the man
Once more that Stranger stood: ’Seest thou yon tent?
My Brother kneels within it. Thither speed
And bid him know I sent thee, speaking thus,
“He whom the Christians name ‘the Rock’ am I:
My Master heard thy prayer: I sought thy church,
And sang myself her Consecration rite:
Close thou that service with thanksgiving psalm."’

Thus spake the Stranger, and was seen no more:
But whether o’er the waters, as of old
Footing that Galilean Sea, with faith
Not now infirm he reached the southern shore,
Or passed from sight as one whom crowds conceal,
The fisher knew not. At the tent arrived,
Before its little door he bent, and lo!
Within, there knelt a venerable man
With hoary hands screening a hoary head,
Who prayed, and prayed. His tale the fisher told:
With countenance unamazed, yet well content,
That kneeler answered, ’Son, thy speech is true!
Hence, and announce thy tidings to the King,
Who leaves his couch but now.’

How beautiful

That old man sang, as down the Thames at morn
In multitudinous pomp the barges dropped,
Following those twain that side by side advanced,
One royal, one pontific, bearing each
The Cross in silver blazoned or in gold
’How beautiful, O Sion, are thy courts!
Lo, on thy brow thy Maker’s name is writ:
Fair is this place and awful; porch of heaven:
Behold, God’s Church is founded on a rock:
It stands, and shall not fall: the gates of Hell
Shall not prevail against it.’

From the barge

Of Sebert and his Queen, antiphonal
Rapturous response was wafted: ’I beheld
Jerusalem, the City sage and blest;
From heaven I saw it to the earth descending
In sanctity gold-vested, as a Bride
Decked for her Lord. I heard a voice which sang,
Behold the House where God will dwell with men:
And God shall wipe the tears from off their face;
And death shall be no more.’

Old Thames that day

Brightened with banners of a thousand boats
Winnowed by winds flower-scented. Countless hands
Tossed on the brimming river chaplets wov’n
On mead or hill, or branches lopped in woods
With fruit-bloom red, or white with clustering cone,
Changing clear stream to garden. Mile on mile
Now song was heard, now bugle horn that died
Gradual ’mid sedge and reed. Alone the swan
High on the western waters kept aloof;
Remote she eyed the scene with neck thrown back,
Her ancient calm preferring, and her haunt
Crystalline still. Alone the Julian Tower
Far down the eastern stream, though tap’stries waved
From every window, every roof o’er-swarmed
With anthem-echoing throngs, maintained, unmoved,
Roman and Stoic, her Caesarean pride:
On Saxon feasts she fixed a cold, grey gaze;
Mid Christian hymns heard but the old acclaim
Consul Romanus.’

When the sun had reached

Its noonday height, a people and its king
Around their minster pressed. With measured tread
And Introit chanted, up the pillared nave
Reverent they moved: then knelt. Between their ranks
Their Bishop last advanced with mitred brow
And in his hand the Cross, at every step
Signing the benediction of his Lord.
The altar steps he mounted. Turning then
Westward his face to that innumerous host,
Thus spake he unastonished: ’Sirs, ere now
This churchs Consecration rite was sung:
Be ours to sing thanksgiving to our God,
“Ter-Sanctus,” and “Te Deum."’